Investigators looking for evidence of forced labor in clothing supply chains in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang on behalf of global fashion companies are unable to mount effective investigations into what is happening on the ground, auditors, rights activists and a former detainee told RFA.
The U.S. warned textile and fashion companies in July to "apply appropriate due diligence" to ensure their supply chains weren't connected to forced labor, mass detention, and other abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the region.
However, there are practical problems linked to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) blanket security measures in Xinjiang, and its total control over what labor investigators see once they get there, RFA has learned.
Dina Nudabey, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang's Ili prefecture and former detainee in China's vast network of internment camps, said she met victims of forced labor during her time in one camp, which was euphemistically named a "vocational training center."
"While I was [being held at] the vocational training center, they sent a lot of women there from the women's prison," she told RFA. "They were all Uyghurs who had been forced to work in textiles while they were at the prison."
"There was a huge underground corridor, which was a factory, and they didn't get paid a cent for working there," she said.
Nudabey said she was locked up in the camp in 2017 after the authorities discovered foreign-made communications software on her cell phone.
She said the CCP claimed it was "helping" Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, by sending them for "vocational training."
But once there, detainees -- many of whom were already successful professionals or business owners before their detention -- were forced to work, to learn Mandarin, and to parrot CCP propaganda.
She said there is little likelihood that any international auditor would ever see what was really going on in Xinjiang.
"There were a lot of investigators; one came by pretty much every day," Nudabey said. "They were monitored everywhere they went."
"When their arrival was announced, we would get ourselves ready, put on nice clothes and sit up straight, as if nothing was happening and there was no such thing as forced labor, nothing to see here," she said.
The U.S. non-profit auditing company WRAP, which specializes in investigating textile supply chains for abuses, said it had declined to carry out an audit in Xinjiang recently.
An employee told RFA that that there were too many doubts over the safety and independence of its investigators, should they be sent to Xinjiang, and that they wouldn't be able to carry out an accurate and reliable probe given the current situation.
Many getting rich
Human rights activist Serekjan Bilash, who has been arrested for leading an international campaign against the Xinjiang camps, told RFA that the forced labor textiles business is making some powerful people in the region very rich.
"The intermediary agencies are making money, the high-ranking concentration camps are making money, the leaders of the local police departments are making money, and so are private corporations," he said. "The Chinese government has turned a blind eye to this."
The U.S. in September issued a ban on imports of Xinjiang cotton, while the U.K. has issued a requirement on its companies to boycott forced labor in Xinjiang, and to provide proof that their supply chains are free of it.
But campaigner Yang Zhengxian said companies aren't really capable of finding out the truth about their supply chains.
He said consumers should continue to put pressure on global brands to cut all ties with Xinjiang, rather than trying to investigate what is happening on the ground.
The U.S. in July warned firms to shun supply chains linked to forced labor, mass detention, and other abuses against Uyghurs in northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but also warned that even suppliers elsewhere in China could themselves be implicated in Xinjiang abuses.
The State Department said companies could also be inadvertently encouraging the construction of more internment camps, which are currently believed to be holding up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
No credible explanation
Rights groups estimate that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton and/or yarn from the region: "It is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labor," according to a report by the End Uyghur Forced Labor campaign in July.
The campaign said that while major corporations claim not to tolerate forced labor by their suppliers, they have yet to give a credible explanation as to how they can meet this standard in practice.
Among the companies named in a recent report on forced labor in Xinjiang was the Japanese clothing and lifestyle brand Muji.
A visit to a branch of Muji in Hong Kong revealed that the company is still selling products clearly labeled as containing Xinjiang cotton.
The sales assistant confirmed that the cotton in one item was indeed sourced from Xinjiang, but claimed it definitely wasn't made using forced labor.
"No, no, our company will have investigated it," the sales assistant said. "It is such a big company, I don't think it will put out anything tainted."
Muji's public relations department said in an email that the company "is very concerned about human rights issues in Xinjiang."
It said the company had engaged a third-party auditor to ensure that the cotton yarn it uses meets international labor requirements.
"If any violation is found in a supplier's factory, the company will immediately request that the contractor correct it," it said, adding that no reports of human rights violations had yet been received.
Reported by Gigi Lee and Chan Yun Nam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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